I remember walking to class one morning as a 10-year-old boy, and for no particular reason, my gaze drifted to my right, just in time to catch a classmate exiting the girls restroom. It was a split second glance into the forbidden zone, and I was suddenly guilty. Did anyone see me? The girls restroom didn't look anything like the boys restroom, I thought. More pointedly, what was the nature and purpose of that large white box bolted to the side of the bathroom wall?
Whatever goodies that glorious white box dispensed, I decided that the facilities, and indeed the experience of using the girls restroom were irrefutably better than could be had in the boys. Some time later, I pieced together enough information to conclude that the box held a supply of tampons or menstrual pads, which had something to do with women and their periods. As to how often girls used these soft cotton marvels of technological innovation was a complete mystery, and I knew even less about how they used them.
That fleeting glance of the white box that day stirred my curiosity, but somehow I intuitively understood that to broach the topic of women’s menstruation was to risk embarrassment, so I never brought it up. I eventually learned the basic mechanics of an average menstrual cycle, but it wasn’t until after high school that I developed some very close relationships with women, and through our conversations, I was finally able to name this bizarre mystique surrounding the topic of menstruation.
I’ve always been a curious guy, so it’s fitting that I became a sociologist. I’ve been thinking about just how pervasive this fear of menstruation is in American society, and I’m wondering why it exists at all. One could look at Hollywood movies as a rough gauge of the ubiquity of the fear. The kinds of stories we transform into blockbuster movies, and even the jokes we tell in those movies, say a lot about our society. Take, for instance, the popular 2007 film, Superbad, starring Jonah Hill as Seth. In one memorable scene, Seth finds himself dancing close to a woman at a party and accidentally winds up with her menstrual blood on his pant leg. A group of boys at the party spot the blood, deduce the source, and one by one, they buckle in laughter. Seth is humiliated by what is supposed to be an awkward adolescent moment, but he’s also gagging uncontrollably from his own disgust.
Menstrual blood, in its capacity to stir discomfort and uneasiness, is used as a vehicle for comedy in Superbad, but in the Stephen King film, it serves a different purpose. In Carrie, King's depiction of Carrie's first period is used to layer in tension, and it is not until the concluding scene, when a spiteful classmate pours a brimming bucket of pseudo-menstrual blood over Carrie's head in front of the entire student body, that Carrie finally resolves the tension by using her telekinetic powers to bar all exits and set her tormenters ablaze.
These two films are from entirely different genres and are separated by over 30 years; yet they rely on the same cultural taboos and anxieties surrounding menstruation (as do many, many other films I haven't mentioned). Both films have been commercially successful, suggesting they contain themes and characters that resonate with a broad swath of the American public. The menstrual scenes from Carrie are as unsettling as the scene from Superbad is hilarious because both films successfully capitalized on the collective sense of shame surrounding menstruation.
Long before me, feminists have noted that the all-too-common fear of menstrual contamination and the shame of failing to manage the menstrual flow are deeply held ideas rooted in patriarchy. That some men involuntarily gag at the mere thought of menstrual blood is evidence that the natural human experience of menstruation has been successfully re-imagined in American society as a kind of pathology. But I think it is important to remember, that women bear the brunt of this ideology. After all, women’s bodies are pathologized, not men’s.
It’s also important not to lose sight of the fact that this pervasive fear of menstruation fuels a multi-billion dollar industry, which produces and markets hundreds of products designed to manage and even suppress menstruation (e.g., Lybrel and Seasonique), and it is this relationship between menstrual shame and corporate profit that needs to be exposed and disentangled.
In an interview about her recent book, New Blood: Third Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation, sociologist Chris Bobel nicely articulates the connection between menstrual anxiety and corporate profit:
The prohibition against talking about menstruation—shh…that’s dirty; that’s gross; pretend it’s not going on; just clean it up—breeds a climate where corporations, like femcare companies and pharmaceutical companies, like the makers of Lybrel and Seasonique, can develop and market products of questionable safety. They can conveniently exploit women’s body shame and self-hatred. And we see this, by the way, when it comes to birthing, breastfeeding, birth control and health care in general. The medical industrial complex depends on our ignorance and discomfort with our bodies.
Bobel’s analysis helps make sense of why I felt so certain at the ripe old age of 10 that I couldn’t ask anyone about the tampon dispenser on the wall. By then, I had already internalized the patriarchal notion that women’s menstruation is a potential source of shame, or at least that my interest in it would be shameful. Nearly three decades later, when discussing the topic with my students in the introduction to sociology class I teach, I invariably get asked why—given all we know about the natural, reproductive purpose of the menstrual cycle—do we persist in attaching shame and embarrassment to this experience? In order to understand why, I think we need to critically examine the way patriarchy is entangled with capitalism. As Bobel also notes, it is profitable to peddle the patriarchal idea that women’s bodies are potentially dangerous well springs of shame. Femcare companies and the advertising firms they hire devote enormous resources toward replenishing this well of menstrual anxiety, thereby ensuring women continue to purchase a host of products all designed with the intent of managing their menstrual flow or even stopping it all together.
Unfortunately, quelling the persistence of these very problematic ideas about women and menstruation is a tall order. If my argument is that it is untenable for advertisers to effectively tell women they must use femcare products to avoid shame, then it is equally untenable for me—especially as a man—to tell women to do something else. Instead, I'll conclude with what feels to be an embarrassing compromise with a system I'd rather just discard. My hope is that both women and men can become critically-minded consumers of media and the representations it deploys about women and their bodies. The American public, and many other publics, currently confront a number of anxiety-inducing challenges, menstruation just isn't one of them.
With the 83rd Academy Awards looming, the celebratory cries of Americans who love their cinema have reached a virtual fever pitch. As a site that celebrates movies, we thought it only appropriate to join in the revelry, albeit in an unconventional way. Rather than endless commentary about who is wearing who, and which star is most deserving of an Oscar, we at The Sociological Cinema would like to offer up a note about the kinds of stories Americans most often celebrate and value. We want to draw attention to the overwhelmingly male-centered narratives and representations emanating from the Hollywood film industry.
Lucky for us, feminist cultural critic, Anita Sarkeesian, offers a very succinct analysis on the topic in a five-minute clip. In it, she demonstrates that our most celebrated films in the United States tend to be stories about men. As she explains, one of the consequences of living in a patriarchal society is that stories about men and masculine representations--their trials and transformations, courage and heroism--tend to be valued more than stories about women and feminine representations. Drawing from Sarkeesian's analysis, one can think about the following questions as they pertain to the films being celebrated as cinematic triumphs on Sunday: 1. Who has the most screen time? 2. Whose perspective do we see the story from? 3. Whose story arc does the plot revolve around? 4. Who is depicted as making consequential decisions in the story? and 5. Who do we most identify with? More often than not, the award is given to a movie about a man, told from his perspective. In fact, As Sarkeesian shows, a sweeping majority of the last 50 films to win the Academy Award for Best Picture were films about men and masculinity.
For those fans of American film who have no patience for Sarkeesian's sound reasoning and...umm...systematic use of data, we submit a second short clip for your consideration. This clip comes from The Girls on Film (TGOF), who describe their film blog as "a commentary with the objective of stimulating thought around the art of storytelling through film." The creators of the blog seek to challenge the audience through their "exploration of archetypal energies that are typically portrayed by men." To this end, the blog features scenes from mainstream blockbuster films that were originally performed by men but recreates them with women actors. In my favorite clip of theirs, Ashleigh Harrington and Katerina Taxia (directed by Jeff Hammond) reenact the recruiting scene from J.J. Abrams' Star Trek (2009). While Harrington and Taxia do a superb acting job, I think many people are dumbstruck when they first encounter the recreated scene. The masculine repartee between these two women and Harrington's bloody nose challenge the idea that masculinity can only be enacted by men. Performances of female masculinity tend to be rare in Hollywood films and are therefore surprising, but more germane to Sarkeesian's point above, The Girls on Film scene might also be surprising because it uses a woman to play the kind of role we have come to expect a man to play. We have been primed to see such important and consequential dialogue between men, so when women do it, it feels somehow disorienting.
Hollywood didn't invent patriarchy, but that doesn't preclude it from being implicated in reproducing it. The cultural critic, Stuart Hall, once observed that the people who work in creating media stand in a different relationship to ideology than the rest of us. That is to say, those who produce, direct, and act in films have at their disposal a powerful tool, which can be used to transform how people come to understand the world in which they live. Movies--especially the ones the Academy deems worthy of its coveted Oscar--pose answers to questions many people never asked, such as, "whose story is likely to matter most?" or just, "who matters?" As evidenced from the list of nominated films this year, those who were hoping for a revolution in the kinds of stories Hollywood tells may be disappointed. For now, a critical awareness of the men and masculinity America is (also) celebrating on Sunday may have to suffice.
For two semesters now, about 60 students have registered for my class on the sociology of gender. They've arrived, some of them with their jitters quite visible and others with what appears to be a cultivated indifference. Hand over hand, my syllabus skates through the rows, and they eagerly thumb through the pages—even the indifferent ones. I imagine many of them are contemplating whether to drop my class and take their chances on the waiting list of another section, so I encourage them to take their time. Perfunctory introductions, then a deep a breath, and at last we launch headlong into the sociological study of gender.
Teaching sociology is akin to playing Morpheus to a group of students who haven't yet seen how deep the rabbit hole goes, and I am convinced that fewer classes are more challenging to teach than gender. I approach the topic most identifiably from a culturalist perspective and draw most notably from material many would identify as falling within the jurisdiction of the sociology of knowledge. Time and again we return to the social and historical processes behind the construction of values, beliefs, and other intellectual structures. How are they built, sustained, recreated, and manipulated? I set as my first task excavating a level of deep culture by asking them to consider how gender is socially constructed.
Students are of course more than capable of parroting such constructivist sentiments as Simone de Beauvoir's remark that “One is not born but rather becomes, a woman.” What is needed to transform students’ thinking is to dislodge their foundational assumptions—the premises upon which they begin to think. It is necessary, then, to begin by cultivating uncertainty, or by forcing them to interrogate and articulate their own common sense understandings of the world.
A recent discussion from the class stands as a good example. In it, students took aim at unequal beauty standards and exaggerated swaggers as the constructed implements of a gender stratified society. Not surprisingly, most students were at ease with rejecting any natural affinity between women and domesticity; however, the timeless truth that homo sapiens are naturally divided into two distinct types—men and women—remained unscathed.
Cultivating uncertainty, I pressed them, "So what do we make of the fact that some societies count three genders?"
"There are always exceptions," came one response.
"By this logic, your schema renders exceptions. Why not modify it?" The student conceded that he believed his model was based on what was most clearly given by biology. Thus at last the premise underlying so much of his certainty was exposed. This student and others couldn’t disagree more with de Beauvoir’s assertion. For them, one is born a man or a woman and does not become one—not really.
Having identified this premise, I marked it on a placard and propped it up on the table at the front of the classroom like a life-sized, pop-out book. Biology—if we're being honest—is not given as a clear binary but exists as a spectrum. Women and men cannot just be identified by disrobing and neither will a snapshot of a person’s chromosomes yield a definitive answer. As Cary Costello asserts in his comments regarding the spectacle surrounding athlete Caster Semenya in 2009, "Dyadic sex is a myth—sex is a spectrum. Hormones, chromosomes, genitals, gonads—they are all arranged in many complex ways, and imposing a binary onto them is arbitrary. It's as arbitrary as saying all fruit is either sweet or sour."
Class discussion desperately moved from the macro to the micro, from the genitals to the genome; each student in turn attempting to retrace what they once believed was an impenetrable basis upon which they invested so much of their thinking. But they were on a threshold, for they were wrestling with something very unsettling: our dyadic gender claims to be based on biological sex, but in fact, dyadic sex is itself a myth. This moment of dislodging a foundational premise is not simply akin to that feeling of disorientation when awakening in an unfamiliar place; rather, it threatens to be more permanent and irresolvable. It is something like being unable to discern whether you were just now a person dreaming you were a fish, or all along a fish dreaming you were a person.
Coaxing students into this uncertainty, this zone of indistinction, is the beginning of the teaching moment. However, collective uncertainty is no place to dwell for an entire semester. If my claim is that they can no longer uncritically draw upon their usual common sense to evaluate the world—if that way of knowing is to be cast in suspicion—then what am I proposing as a replacement? What will they use to evaluate their common sense?
Beginning photographers are often told they must learn again how to “see” light, which is really a process of paying attention to the way light paints their subject matter. Student photographers must all come to terms with the fact that they were never able to truly “see” the objects which populate their world, only the light reflected from those objects. This is more than elaborate explanation because learning to “see” is really learning to see through illusions. It is about (re)learning that sugar, dove soap, and snow are not necessarily white. Where these objects fall on a grey scale is contingent on how much light they are reflecting back in a given composition. To learn to “see,” photography students are shown photographs and they are shown how to reproduce such photographs. This process is not dissimilar to the one sociology students of gender must confront.
Having coaxed students to suspend their common sense and having plunged them into a pit of indistinction, a fleeting moment arrives where they are more open to a critical alternative. It is at this juncture that the pitchman (in my case) must finally demonstrate his product, lest the crowd disperse. Like the photography students who were shown that snow is sometimes black, I must demonstrate by example how gender is socially constructed.
The process of social construction has been theorized in a number of ways, but focusing on the way it happens through media representation and signification works well as a particularly vivid example. To this end, Jean Kilbourne's 1999 documentary, Killing Us Softly, continues to have an impact on students. The film chronicles pervasive representations of men and women in the media. The problem here is that many of my students were ten years old when the movie was made, leading to the oft heard dismissal, “Thank God that doesn’t happen anymore!” There is also the more sophisticated critique that many of the examples deployed are “one-sided,” or that the evidence was hand-picked by Kilbourne to invent a story about objectification. Students presumably dismiss the film's objectification thesis once they have identified that plenty of images exist where women are not objectified.
Thus the problem confronting teachers is that students of sociology need to be shown how gendered messages are continually asserted through popular representation, and this needs to be demonstrated in a way that cannot be easily dismissed as an artifact of a regrettable past or a biased simplification. So there could be no question as to how current the information was, I drew upon an advertisement for the new iPad from Steve Jobs and company. The ad pretends to be a casual chat with four of the creative tech geeks at Apple, who just love what they do and are gushing to talk about this cool thing they invented.
Women are conspicuously missing from this eight-minute clip; yet I would argue that even among women the ad is largely successful for Apple. While questions have surfaced about how truly innovative the iPad is, fewer have questioned the natural affinity depicted in this commercial between male logic and technological innovation. Hearing the epithet "computer geek," we in the U.S. mostly think of men, and that is precisely who we want designing our high tech gadgets because we associate men with logical integrity. Perhaps Apple intuitively understands that if they featured an exuberant woman in the ad, it would suggest that the iPad’s programming is logically flawed.
This analysis baits controversy among my students, and almost immediately hands are raised. A flurry of remarks ensue, each insisting on counterexamples which demonstrate that women are definitely also represented in our society as having technological prowess. Plenty of visual representations suggest that they too belong to the symbolic universe of high technology. “This is true,” I tell them, “but consider the technology women are typically paired with.”
Here I turn to play a second short clip, this time taken from TED Talks, a non-profit which hosts presentations related to ideas of technology, entertainment, and design. Jane Chen, the CEO of a company called Embrace, recently gave a presentation for them which caught my attention. In it, she promotes a life-saving and inexpensive incubation technology for premature infants, which her company invented.
While this spot is about a high technology, it is presented exclusively by a woman, and therefore begs a corrective to my earlier claim that technology is the privileged domain of men. It's not that women have no place in high technology; they clearly do. Rather, this clip demonstrates that we want women involved with technologies related to nurturing and saving the lives of newborns.
The take-away for my students is really twofold and recalls the idea that a lot of popular thinking about gender is informed by a common sense which continually attempts to link gender to biology. This affinity between woman and incubator works because it conforms to the pervasive assumption that nature produces two distinct types of people, and one is naturally more nurturing than the other. We are primed, in a sense, so that certain messages resonate with us, while others seem odd or inappropriate. By that same token, these clips and the institutions that built them are implicated in continuing to replicate distinct pairings of gender and technology. Noteably, commercials which claim to be exclusively about technology, make significant contributions to people's common sense about gender.
I mentioned above that collective uncertainty is no place to dwell and that if teachers ask their students to be suspicious of their common sense, they are obliged to offer their students an alternative. I don't know if an alternative can be cut from whole cloth, but modifications are certainly possible. To this end, I try to conclude my class by encouraging students to discuss the way their assumptions about nature and biology have informed their own thinking. I encourage them to reflect on the way these regimes of representation have invaded their own evaluations of the people in their lives. Ideally, this particular teaching moment concludes with students comprehending the way their common sense is always informed by a larger culture which envelopes them.